Philip A. Cunningham
This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe on April 6, 2004
Try This. Select five Christians and five Jews. Give each person a 3x5 card. Then hold up a crucifix. Now ask all present to write down words that describe the thoughts and feelings that are evoked by this symbol. In most instances, Christians will write words like "love," "redemption," "hope," and "salvation." Jews, on the other hand, will offer words like "fear," "persecution," and "danger."
Such sharp differences in perspectives have also shaped reactions to Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ." Generally speaking, Jews and Christians walk out of theaters having seen two different movies. Many Christians observe a sacred drama that touches their faith. Jews overwhelmingly see stereotypes that have fueled the demonization and persecution of Jews for centuries. This difference in perception is rooted in a history that has particular resonance at this time of year.
For Jews the Passover holiday celebrates the redemption of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The first Christians were Jews who continued to celebrate Passover. Ultimately this observance gave way to Holy Week and Easter celebrations of the redemption that Christians believe was brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The "failure" of most of the Jewish world to embrace this new understanding prompted many Christians to believe that Jews were not only in opposition to Jesus, but also on the wrong side of a cosmic battle between good and evil. This contributed to what became a universal assumption in Christendom that Jews were an accursed people doomed to wander the earth and know no peace.
It, therefore, was not hard for ordinary Christians in the late Middle Ages to believe that Jews spread disease by poisoning wells, secretly manipulated the levers of power, corrupted innocent souls, or slaughtered Christian children to use their blood to make Passover matzah. Jews responded to the last claim by opening their doors at a certain point in the Passover meal so Christian neighbors could see that nothing evil was occurring. Good Friday was a particularly perilous time for Jews. In some countries, the dangers became so widespread that laws were passed requiring Jews to stay in their homes.
After World War II, the Catholic and many Protestant churches, cognizant of the recent murder of 6 million Jews and sensitive to the role that their teachings had played in fomenting anti-Semitism, courageously evaluated these teachings in order to minimize the danger that they could promote contempt for Jews. Among the many practices and beliefs that were reconsidered was the manner in which Jesus' Passion had been portrayed in dramatic reenactments during Holy Week. These passion plays sometimes sparked anti-Jewish hostility. The most famous such play, that of Oberammergau in Germany, was praised by Adolf Hitler in 1934 as a "precious tool" in the fight against Jews.
In 1988 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, applied Vatican instructions in the form of guidelines to ensure that dramatic presentations of Jesus' Passion did not demonize the Jewish people or their religion. Regrettably, Mel Gibson chose not to follow these teachings.
Gibson's portrayal of the Passion has its "good Jews," but the overwhelming portrait of the Jewish mobs and the High Priest Caiaphas and his fellow priests is as hateful, bloodthirsty, and conniving. This is the grotesque and all too familiar caricature that has brought grief to generations of Jews. It is also the caricature that has deeply colored the feelings of many Jews about a central event in Christian faith -- Jesus' death on the cross.
And yet the situation is far from bleak. The dialogue between Christians and Jews that has developed over the last 40 years has produced unprecedented insights into one another's traditions. These insights have helped temper ideas that have given rise to anti-Semitism in the past. Likewise, instead of praying for "the perfidious Jews" as they had for centuries, Catholics this Good Friday will pray, as they have now for decades, that Jews, because of their eternal covenant with God, will "continue to grow in the love of God's name." Other Christians will offer similar prayers. Such reforms are helping Jews to feel less threatened by Christian faith and by symbols like the crucifix that have represented it.
We are only beginning to build a new relationship. It is uncertain whether in a time of mounting religious zealotry this dialogue will continue to grow and flourish.
As we Christians and Jews celebrate Passover and Easter this year we might take a moment to pray that understanding among Christians and Jews continues to grow, so that generations to come shall not be enslaved by hostility and ignorance and instead find new life in friendship and understanding.